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In the Suburbs / A rare, early Rosh Hashana

Published 6:31 am, Sunday, September 8, 2013
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At sundown on Wednesday, we Jews ushered in Rosh Hashana -- the Jewish New Year -- earlier than we had in more than a century. The last time it was as early as Sept. 4 was in 1899, according to the Spertus Institute for Learning and Leadership in Chicago.

It seems odd to begin the High Holiday season just two days after Labor Day. Thankfully, according to the Spertus Institute, the holiday won't again fall this close to Labor Day until 2089.

But the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent pointed out that other Jewish holidays will be earlier this year, too. "Look a few months down the road, and you'll see that the first night of Chanukah -- a holiday that sometimes coincides with Christmas -- actually comes the day before Thanksgiving," it reported.

With Rosh Hashana last week, I'm sure a lot of Jewish families in Fairfield -- already sentenced by Hurricane Sandy to a shorter summer -- barely had the opportunity to put away the lawn furniture and close up their pools before they donned fancier clothes for traditional family dinners and services Wednesday night.

When I set out to write a holiday column this year, I didn't initially realize that early High Holy Days could be so disruptive. But I found some interesting research to clarify things.

In that Philadelphia Jewish Exponent piece, for example, I chuckled over a quote from Rabbi Eric Rosin of Kesher Israel, a conservative synagogue near Philadelphia. Asked whether this year's calendar presents a special challenge for congregants trying to get in the spiritual zone, he said, "I've heard more panic about getting brisket in the oven than doing spiritual preparation."

But Rabbi Hillel Goldberg of Denver, writing in Intermountain Jewish News in July, said "holiness requires preparation."

"July and August roll around, and one begins to think of Rosh Hashana, he wrote. "Perhaps one needs to make plane reservations to visit family in another city... Perhaps one begins to think of a guest list. Perhaps one begins to introspect. But the mood of the High Holidays begins to creep into one's conscious."

Hardly so this year, he said. "July and August roll around -- poof, it's Rosh Hashana already."

Goldberg explained how the lunar and solar calendars brought about these early High Holidays. "The Jewish calendar is both lunar-based and solar based, and since the lunar year is some 11 days shorter than the solar year, the Jewish calendar must add a leap month six times every 19 years to keep Passover in the spring (a solar measure). Well, that last leap month didn't catch us up that much to the solar cycle (which is why Passover was so early this year)."

This comment by Goldberg really stuck me: "Thinking takes time. A spiritual mood is not manufactured on demand. The build up to the High Holiday season is a slow increase in intensity."

I couldn't agree more. While I am hardly a zealous Jew these days, I still believe there is something very special and deep about the High Holidays. Having them arrive so early has given me little time to be introspective and prepare. We've barely had enough time to order our traditional round challah with raisins from Billy's Bakery.

I like it when the holidays start later -- especially in late September or early October. They represent a symbolic transition from the lazy, days of summer to the cooler days of fall. I've written previously about sitting in the synagogue in the fall, during the N'ilah service -- the last service on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

As the sun went down, I watched the sanctuary lights become brighter. When services ended I walked into the crisp night air, feeling more ready to break the fast and begin a new year, forgiven again for my sins.

But this year, I'll probably feel like breaking my Yom Kippur fast over a barbecue grill wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. That is definitely a strange image on the holiest day of the year.

Nevertheless, despite the early arrival of these holidays, I have still felt spiritual, introspective and, most importantly, thankful for the love of family and friends, good health and the sweetness of another year.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.